The Luxury to Express One’s Feelings: An Interview with Housam Al-Mosilli

by    /  April 24, 2017  / Comments Off on The Luxury to Express One’s Feelings: An Interview with Housam Al-Mosilli

Photo by Khalid Eid

One year after the start of the Syrian revolution in 2012, Housam Al-Mosilli and his friends were arrested, imprisoned, and tortured when they were stopped at a checkpoint on their way to cover an anti-government protest in Damascus. The group left the prison alive, but Housam remained aware of the constant threat on his life in the months following. He fled Syria in December of 2012, traveling to Lebanon, Egypt, and Turkey before being accepted as the ICORN writer in residence in Linköping, arriving in Sweden. Since leaving Syria, Housam has continued to write nonfiction, short stories, poetry, and novels about politics, film, and human rights.

In this conversation with, Housam discusses his life in Syria and in exile, his ability to move across multiple genres in writing, and what he imagines for Syria’s future.

Life in Syria, and Out

You were arrested for the third time in 2012 for documenting an opposition 
demonstration. When did you first become blacklisted? How did the situation build into the 2012 arrest and torture?

It started in May 2011. That was the first time I was arrested actually. It was because of an article I wrote; I was comparing Assad’s regime to the film The Grey– the main actor was Liam Neeson, if you remember it—which is about about wolves and how wolves can track us. 

I was talking about the regime in this piece. I cannot remember the publisher because they used a fake name, but they published my piece with my name and my photo. There was a problem I had already been arrested for before.

In addition, I had been constantly participating in the Syrian demonstrations against the regime since the revolution started. The security in Syria was very afraid of people working in the media because they were taking photos and videos of what was happening the country and spreading it worldwide. They were afraid of us and sometimes we were treated badly. When I was arrested for the third time– I was living in the countryside of Damascus– they stopped us at a checkpoint. I was there for several hours under torture. That was the worst of my three arrests. But even before that, I wasn’t staying at my home, or even at my family’s place. I used to change places and sleep at friends’ apartments; there was always some new place to move to. I was always scared that my name was on the blacklist, and we had connections, people who were undercover, inside the security. They told us that my name was blacklisted. And I actually discovered my documents confirming this after I left Syria. 

When did you realize that you would have to leave Syria? 

Well, I did not want to leave. But the pressure on my friends and the threats– it was overwhelming. I was putting them in danger, and I was also putting myself in danger. There was a lot of pressure, especially from my mother, to leave the country, saying, “You are putting us and your brothers in danger.” After being arrested three times, I did not have the ability to move freely in the country. I was always walking and walking; I could not go in a taxi or on a bus, because at the checkpoints they used to stop and check people with IDs, and I knew that I would have been detained a lot of times. I made the decision in the last days of 2012, and I left the country on the 29 of December for Lebanon. 

You traveled to Lebanon and then to Egypt and Turkey before being accepted as the ICORN writer in Linköping. What was it like to write in exile while still 
fearing your safety?

The danger never stopped after leaving Syria. In countries like Lebanon, Egypt, or even Turkey, there’s a bit of chaos. While in Lebanon, I was publishing in the Lebanese newspapers and websites, and I was also publishing other texts and poetry. But I was also working on research and political opinion articles. I left Lebanon because the number of people threatening me increased.

The Syrian civil war did not stop at the borders of Lebanon. It tore the country into a lot of parts, with all of them fighting each other. Some of them are with the regime of Assad, like the militia of Hezbollah. They controlled the airport traffic and were connected with the borders, and they tracked my travels from Lebanon to Egypt. It was dangerous.

In Egypt it was the same thing. I got some threats from the military consulate and the Syrian embassy in Cairo, saying, “You have to trust us and work with us or you may be arrested and transferred from Egypt to Syria.” That’s why I left for Turkey.

While in Turkey, I was working on several subjects. I believe some people should specialize with one subject, but of course we should also know about all parts of the world, not only about our own country. I did some research for the London School of Economics and had some contacts with Esquire; I was working as an editor-in-chief in Turkey. I was doing everything that served the cause. 

Called to Art, Forced to Write

When did you first realize you wanted to become a professional writer? What led up to this decision?

It was always about art. I have been saying “I’m going to be an artist,” since I was in school. And when I was in school, I had a very good teacher– I still love him a lot– he was a teacher of the Arabic language. He used to encourage me and give me a lot of advice and books to read. I thought I was either going to be a writer, a scriptwriter for TV, or maybe an actor.

Instead, the circumstances within Syria led me to my career. If you wanted to be an actor, for example, the Regime controlled the institution, so you would need somebody to push your case to the Regime or pay money. So I decided to write.

Now that I’m doing well, I feel like myself when I write. I feel like I’m shaping something. I worked in several professions before that weren’t related to the arts. But even then writing made me feel very full of possibility.

What are the other fields you worked in before becoming a writer? Does that time you spent working other jobs still influence your writing now?

I got a lot of experience from working in fields very far from art and writing. I was very interested in marketing and business administration, and I translated several books and articles for private universities in Syria. I’ve found that now I’m very familiar with the ideas of marketing because there’s a lot of creative innovation there. I also worked as a manager for a company, one of the biggest companies in Syria. I was one of the younger people in the company, but I still held a very high position.

This still affects a lot of my writing, because I see the reality of the events I am writing about from different points of view. I am not just looking at what’s happening internationally or at any spot in the world with an artist’s eye only; I can look at it through the eyes of accounting, for example, or through the eyes of a salesman. So writing with all these different points of view will make you have an expanded view of what’s happening around you. 

Who are your literary influences?

Actually, Hemingway is my biggest. I always write that “Hemingway is my hero.” Because he was a writer, but before that he was a correspondent covering the war. He did not want to live this political life of an artist during that time period. He wanted to be engaged; he wanted to be with people, to see what was happening in the war, not to write about something he did not know. For me, Hemingway was a true hero. And I’m always afraid that I’m going to finish like him, so I’m trying to be more optimistic about life. 

What is your favorite Hemingway work? 

For Whom the Bell Tolls. Actually I have this quote tattooed on my arm, it’s: “Send not to know for whom the bell tolls, It tolls for thee.” This is from a poem written by John Donne, a British poet, someone else of whom I’m a very big fan. Hemingway was influenced by John Donne when he named his novel For Whom the Bell Tolls. 

I also think Roberto Amato, the Italian, is one of my favorites. Eduardo Galeano, he wrote something about football, and I still think it’s one of the best pieces of art ever written. Because it touches you when he is only speaking about football. But you can see the reflection of all the world in this poem. It’s quite amazing. But you know I influence myself sometimes– because sometimes I feel that if I’m getting very influenced by others, I’m losing my way with writing. And sometimes I think yeah, I’m a writer too, let’s pretend that I’m a really good writer, and I idolize myself. 

You said fleeing Syria and being persecuted as a writer made you “closer to your writing” and established your identity as a writer. Did isolation play a role in that closeness? Do you think all writers have to enter into isolation in order to establish this identity?

I think being isolated is very important because there are always things you need reflect on by sitting alone and thinking about everything you did and everything that happened, if you made the right decisions or not, what could be changed if you had the chance to change something in the past, and what your future plan is. And to look at the events happening, for example in Syria, without pressure from the media, friends and family, and just think I’m going to be neutral and look at what is happening. And thinking about your future; I think no one can write good things without being in such an experience of isolation. Because in the world we are living in, a lot of things can change or manipulate us, our opinions or our reality. I have actually really enjoyed the experience of loneliness. Of course, I’m not lonely all the time, but you have to have your own space and your own time. And I think this goes not only for writing, but for all things in a very fast moving world. We have to stop sometimes and think again about why we are running so fast. What are we trying to catch? What did we miss? 

You write nonfiction, fiction, and poetry. Is there one you started writing first, or have you always written in these different forms?  What does each form bring to your expression; how do you decide which form will be best to express yourself in?
I started with writing nonfiction. I was also writing some short stories, some poetry, and of course every writer when he is young has as his ultimate plan to write a novel. So I was thinking about that, but the situation in Syria did not allow me to feel free. I was in a position to just write about the war. And I needed to because there are people who don’t know what’s happening in the country. You have to write some testimonies or articles, political articles, do some research. We did not have the luxury to write nonfiction.

We did not have the luxury to express our feelings. The priority was to tell the people what was happening. This happens during every war in the world. During the war or even after it’s been over for two or three years, you do not have a very good artistic world. It’s all about the country. After that, you have the luxury to express yourself. Then you will see the cinema, the movies, and novels that can last for a long time, that can express not only the writer, but a lot of people who lived through the same misery. I like to express myself in poetry of course, but I still didn’t have the time to just focus on this.

We did not have the luxury to express our feelings. The priority was to tell the people what was happening.

I’m now focusing on short stories, documenting the nonfiction events in Syria with a fiction point of view. I already wrote several short stories, and I’m planning on publishing them when I have about twenty or twenty-five.

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